There was a short period of time when Monster Rancher was part of the American zeitgeist. For a good few months, Monster Rancher was seen as hot competition for Pokémon. It had a fairly popular anime and toys were lining shelves at Toys “R” Us. Then, it vanished. Stateside, not many people talk about Monster Rancher nowadays. When people do talk about Monster Rancher, though, they usually use the dreaded words that a lot of “mon” series get: “Pokémon rip-off.”
To catch those who don’t remember up to speed, the Monster Rancher series started on the PlayStation back in 1997. Pokémon Red and Blue were released in the US in 1998. While the Pokémon series was already out in Japan by the time Monster Rancher started, Monster Rancher actually came to America before Pokémon. Despite the head start, it took no time at all for the lovable and marketable Pikachu to become a mainstay while the equally lovable but slightly less marketable Mocchi got shoved to the sidelines.
But why was it that the game became instantly branded as a Pokémon rip-off? And to a lesser extent, a Digimon rip-off (which itself was branded a Pokémon rip-off)? The obvious answer is that people take one look at a game with collectible monsters and think “Oh. Pokémon.” It doesn’t matter if the series predated Pokémon by a month, a decade, or a millennium. If it’s got monsters, it’s a Pokémon ripoff. Yo-Kai Watch? Pokémon rip-off. Shin Megami Tensei? Pokémon rip-off for adults. Dragon Quest Monsters? Region-locked Pokémon rip-off. Telefang? Actually a legitimate Pokémon rip-off, I’ll give the public that one.
Animal husbandry, but badass
Despite this, the games have very little in common with Pokémon. The games aren’t RPGs built around battles like Pokémon games are. It’s a raising simulator not unlike the Princess Maker games. If anything, Monster Rancher has much more in common with Neopets than Pokémon. Players could only raise a few monsters at a time and train their stats with planned, daily regiments. While its cast of mons was much smaller than its counterparts, it made up for it with the abundance of crossbreeds. A purebred Suezo, for example, is an angry yellow creature with one giant eyeball, a huge mouth, and one little nubbin of a limb. A Suezo with a Pixie sub-type, though, is pink and much more feminine than a purebred Suezo. A Suezo with a Golem sub-type is made entirely of rocks.
And how do you get these monsters? I’m glad you asked, theoretical reader. The original games on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 had a feature that allowed players to take out the game disc, insert an unrelated disc, scan it, and then pop back in the copy of Monster Rancher. This magical feature allowed any CD, game disc, or (eventually) DVD to be turned into a new monster.
In the first game, a copy of Björk’s Telegram produced a Tiger with a Suezo sub-type, while the first disc of Final Fantasy VII would give you a purebred Pixie. Certain monsters could only be unlocked with specific discs, too. An exclusive popstar-esque Pixie named “Platinum” is only available if you insert Madonna’s Like a Virgin. This feature was what set Monster Rancher apart from its competition. It was exciting to find out what your favorite CD or game got you. And there would be something really undignified if your favorite song produced an ugly purebred Worm.
A world where monsters rule
A Monster Rancher anime was also produced during the heyday of the series. Much like the games, the anime was written off by many as a Pokémon rip-off. While it’s easy to brush those criticisms off, it sadly did have a lot more in common with the Digimon anime than it probably should have. They aimed to be a little edgier than Pokémon and appealed to tweens more so than kids. Both took a low fantasy approach — which means that both involve kids from the “real world” getting transported into a world of monsters. Monster Rancher lacked the character-focused storytelling of Digimon, too, so Digimon came out with the upper hand. Despite this, the Monster Rancher anime is likely what most people remember about the franchise.
People also remember the theme song. And it’s very bad. You can disagree with me, but just remember: I’m right.
So why did it fail?
There’s no definitive answer as to why Monster Rancher didn’t have the staying power of Pokémon or Digimon. It may have been its lack of a mascot that had the same mass appeal as Pikachu. Due to the nature of Monster Rancher’s sub-type system, most monster designs were a little plainer than Pokémon. They had to be, after all, since it’s not exactly easy to combine two overly complex designs. Imagine trying to fuse MetalGreymon with Angewomon. Or, possibly, it was harder to market an animal husbandry game overseas when animal fighting had a much broader appeal.
When its defining feature left the series, the games took a massive blow. After the games made the jump from PlayStation, the disc aspect fell to the wayside. The games released for the Game Boy Advance let players create monsters with a password system, which isn’t exactly as whimsical as being able to summon a monster by inserting a Weird Al CD into a PlayStation. While the first Monster Rancher for the DS was able to use the Game Boy Advance slot to its advantage, that version never made it out of Japan. By the time the sequel made it stateside, most Nintendo DS systems being produced had removed the Game Boy Advance slot. Thus, the disc system was replaced this time by doodling on the DS touch screen. The magic of the series was lost and was replaced with a glorified loot box system.
A comeback on the horizon
The franchise remained pretty dormant after Monster Rancher DS. My Monster Rancher was released on mobile, but you know that a franchise has died when its most recent release was an app from 2011. Recently, however, it was announced that the first Monster Rancher game is being rereleased. It’s not yet known what systems the release will be on, if the release will be a full remake, or if it will be released outside of Japan. It’s entirely likely that the rerelease will be a mobile game, and that’s okay.
The mobile landscape of 2019 is completely different than 2011’s. In today’s more mobile-friendly market, it’s possible Monster Rancher can make a spectacular comeback. Monster raising might be a lot easier for people while they’re on the go than on the couch. And maybe the magic of the disc system can be replicated with barcodes or a QR scanner. Something that will bring back the excitement and spontaneity. Something that isn’t an actual loot box system with microtransactions, please God no.
Hopefully, the revival will help Monster Rancher find its niche, and one that isn’t “Pokémon rip-off.” Monster Rancher isn’t exactly stepping on Pokémon’s toes the same way that Yo-Kai Watch is (or, rather, was). Both Pokémon and Monster Rancher can exist without being seen as competition. And if the world is open to seeing 50 versions of the same superhero movie every year, then the world can handle dealing with two video games with collectible monsters.